An Interview with Carol Rasco from Reading Is Fundamental

Like nearly everyone from my generation who watched Saturday morning cartoons, I remember those old PSAs RIF did with Ed Asner and Carol Burnett. The message that every kid deserves a book of their own really resonated with me even when I was 8 years old. All the more so now that I have made my life in the field of education and children’s literature. It was a great honor to meet Carol Rasco the president and CEO of RIF last fall ath the Kidlit Bloggers Conference in Seattle, Washington and an even greater honor to work in some of her RIF supported schools in Washington DC last month. Here I am with one of the wonderful librarians I met on that trip!










I’m delighted to welcome Carol to the Mixed Up Files as a part of our ongoing series highlighting literacy programs.

RIF has been a smashing success for decades on the simple premise that kids in need ought to have a few books of their own choosing to keep forever, delivered in an environment that celebrates literacy, and supports the adults in the community who are raising up young readers. Last year in support of that goal RIF provided 14 million books to 4 million children.

Can you speak a little bit more about RIFs newer programs, Care to Read and Family of Readers?


RIF recognized a number of years ago that the books were an ingredient around which we should build additional services in order to further our mission “To motivate young children to read by working with them, their parents, and community members to make reading a fun and beneficial part of everyday life.”  Our primary population to be served is that of children at highest risk of failure to learn to read which in truth the majority of the time means children in poverty. 

Two training courses for “train the trainers” were developed: Care to Read for those who care for young children as well as the parents and Family of Readers for parents of school age children and others who work with this age group. Both courses are built on the importance of talking and reading with children, making reading an enjoyable activity…with a sensitivity as well to the fact many of the parents of children in RIF’s primary population served are parents who do not feel they read well, do not read in English, are not comfortable reading with their children. Through corporate funding and fee for service contracts RIF conducts these courses across the country with the demand outstripping the funding available, particularly as schools seek to cover all bases in striving to increase achievement levels. 

Research shows the critical role parental engagement plays in achievement and help in involving parents is welcomed by most organizations. As part of this effort we are also helping local communities discover the power of parent/child reading nights or activities that bring communities or subsets of communities together to share in the excitement of reading together!


One of the most inspiring things about my time working in RIF schools last month was hearing from the women on your staff about why they came to RIF and how much the mission of RIF has meant in their lives. How did you come to be involved with RIF and how long have you been with the organization?

As I left my time in overall domestic policy at the state and federal levels of government, I knew I wanted to focus on children’s programming and policy either in health, child welfare, disability issues and/or education.  The RIF opening seemed and has been a wonderful place over the last ten years (since November 2001) from which to work on all of these to some extent with the emphasis in education and literacy of course.  From my time as a teacher and elementary counselor 40 years ago as well as my role as a parent to a child with special learning needs, I came away with a passion to insure all children and their families have the tools and background needed to have children ready to enter school to learn to read and then supports as needed upon entering school to insure the ability to read well and independently by the end of third/fourth grade. To do less means our nation has failed the child.  

My favorite thing about being a teacher is the collection of victory stories accumulated over the years about children who have succeeded against great odds or who came to you a closed shell of resentment and defeat and then with the right touch, blossomed into an amazing young learner. Do you have a favorite victory story or two from your time with RIF?

It never fails. Anytime I go to speak or simply to be present for RIF at an outside event, someone comes up to me to tell me her/his “RIF story” and often holding the first or the most memorable RIF book received.  It is usually encased in plastic wrap or a sandwich bag and has often been in “Mom’s attic” where the heat has hardened the glue along the spine and the book is falling apart.  There are frequently tears of gratitude that are shed…it is most humbling and is matched by the twinkles in eyes of children selecting a RIF book or the wonder present in first time RIF kids when they realize they “really, really” get to have the book to keep. 

This video of Dr. Dale Allender tells in brief one such story; he contacted us when he learned of the funding problems we were facing in Congress, he wanted to help by telling his RIF story.  One piece not in the video is the fact his doctoral dissertation was based in part on mythology first brought to his attention and activating his interest in reading by way of that first RIF book! 


Given the importance of the mission and the long-track record of success, I was simply gob-smacked to hear that RIF was subjected to a major cut in funding last year. How is RIF moving forward in spite of this financial set back?

Federal fiscal year 2013 will mark the first time in 34+ years that RIF has not had a federal grant with which to assist local communities in purchasing new paperback books from which children can select and own books as their own.  The President recommended this cut for RIF along with numerous other literacy groups in order to make the funds competitive in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which has not occurred, is not yet even a process underway in Congress).  

At RIF we know the need is great and while we will continue to work hard to have funds reinstated in the federal budget, we are moving ahead to downsize our operation, to increase our corporate and private fundraising, to assist our local programs in doing the same.   We are fortunate that we have not lost funders due to this grant loss and many of those funders are seeking to increase their efforts as well.  However, let’s not kid ourselves, we in no way can make up the amount of that grant per year on a sustained basis which provided 15 million books annually to more than four million children. We are also continuing to develop apps and other new programs that were underway as we know it takes an array of tools and methods to meet the needs of all children.

We are also excited about a brand refresh project that was well underway before the loss of the federal grant. This past fall we unveiled a bold new look and logo which marked the beginning of an awareness campaign designed to honor RIF’s iconic brand and spark a widespread movement in support of reading. The new logo is a modern formation of an open book—its openness symbolizes a voice for underserved communities and the world of possibilities opened to children through reading.

  • Today we are launching the awareness campaign aptly named, Book People Unite. The campaign aims to focus national attention on the children’s literacy crisis in America and calls on anyone who believes in the power of books to transform lives to stand with RIF and help get book in the hands of kids that need them most. (see initial video on home page, )
  • The campaign will be formally announced April 16th and will extend well beyond 2012. At the center of the campaign will be the release of a new, history-making PSA showcasing for the first time several of America’s most beloved book characters—including Pinocchio, Babar, Clifford, Madeline, and many others coming together for the love of reading. 
  • This initiative was funded by the generous support of Macy’s, a long time RIF partner, contributing over $21 million to RIF since 2004. Additional funding and support has been provided by the Ad Council, Library of Congress, and creative agency, Mother New York. 

The Mixed Up Files readers are a community of people dedicated to literacy and I’m sure many would like to know how they can best help RIF at this critical time and also how they might bring RIF services their own community. What do you suggest?

We welcome the Mixed Up Files readers, we know you are all Book People and hope you will become involved in the campaign!  Join us in taking the Book People pledge – declaring your belief in the transformative power of books for children.

Don’t forget a lovely gift for someone is to give to RIF in the person’s honor.  For each $2.50 given a new paperback book can be given to a child, cost inclusive of handling!

If your local community is seeking to build a greater literacy learning environment, do not hesitate to write us at, we are eager to visit with you! (put to ATTN: Carol Rasco so I can make sure I see your request!) 

And don’t forget to explore and refer others to our award winning website where there are many great activities for children and for families.

Thank you for sharing your time with us, Carol. In the comments today I’d love to hear from our readers about the difference that book ownership made in your life or that one pivotal book that spoke deeply to you. Let’s hear YOUR stories!

Winner Announced!

And…the winner of the 10 page manuscript critique, courtesy of author Eric Patten is……

Marla Bowie LePley!!

Congrats!  Please contact me, Amie Borst, at AmieBWrite (@) yahoo (dot) com and I’ll see to it that your manuscript gets into Eric’s bound and tied hands.


To #%&* or Not to #%&*: profanity in middle grade fiction

The expectations for the use profanity in children’s fiction are pretty clear. It’s commonplace in YA novels and completely absent in picture books and easy readers. But middle grade fiction takes the middle ground. Is swearing okay in a middle grade book? Well, it’s complicated. The issue is balancing authenticity with respect for your audience. Everybody encounters profanity; it is a language intensifier and can be useful in conveying the weight and reality of your characters situation. And yet it is the nature of profanity to offend, so any use will have consequences in how the book as a whole is received. As a practical matter MG books with profanity tend to be shelved with YA no matter how young the character is. This is not necessarily a problem, To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s 9 year old protagonist Scout have been doing just fine in the YA section of the library for the last five decades. Even so any use of profanity should be carefully considered. When I’m confronted with an opportunity to use a swear word in my novels, here are five choices I consider.
1. Omit
Every time I use profanity I rewrite the scene with out it, let it sit for a day or two and read the result out loud. I have been surprised by how often the scene was stronger without the swear word. Sometimes profanity is just a habit of the author and not integral to the character’s worldview or the movement of the plot.
2. Reduce
My editor once told me that swearing is loud on the page in a way that it is not in real life. I think of it as the equivalent of yelling or texting in all caps. As the mom of many I can tell you yelling is most effective when used sparingly—usually when lives are at stake. I think the last time I actually yelled at home was when someone’s sleeve caught on fire while roasting a marshmallow. Because swearing functions as an intensifier, it’s power is diluted by overuse. If I am working with a character who would naturally swear a lot, I’ll run a word search and see if I can limit the swearing to places where it will have the most impact.
3. Evade
Sometimes  you can duck the issue when the swearing is done by a non-viewpoint character. When I was working on Second Fiddle I knew that the moment that the girls discovered that they were all alone in Paris with no money, no passports and no return train tickets, any normal eighth grader would swear. But my main character wasn’t really the swearing type. Instead, I had her report that her friend said every swear she knew in English and then moved on to exhaust her supply of swear words in French and German. This preserved the authenticity of the scene without getting into a specific swear word.


4. Substitute
Here is one of the more entertaining devices of MG fiction. Most kids get in trouble for swearing, and yet they have the same need for the occasional language intensifier as everyone else. So kids are great at making up substitutes. It’s the drat, darn, and golly solution, and it has great comic potential. I was recently on a grade school play ground where a shouting match arose over a basketball game and the third graders involved avoided detention by calling each other the names of various icky vegetables—Asparagus Head and Eggplant Face were bandied about with alacrity. The advantage to a curse word substitution is that it can also serve to convey information about the character and setting and lighten the mood of an otherwise tense situation.
5. Commit
There are circumstances in which the first four choices are wrong for the voice of the character or the gravity of the situation. And in those cases swearing maybe appropriate. Freedom of Speech means nothing if we never use it, and if you have used profane speech appropriately in your book you will find both people who passionately attack any use of profanity and those who just as passionately defend your right to tell the story as you must, free of censure. I opted to use swearing to a very limited extent in Heart of a Shepherd, having considered and discarded the above considerations, and it has done no harm whatsoever to the book. A few libraries don’t shelve it in k-4 schools. I really have no argument with that. Most teachers who read it aloud chose to skip or modify the swear word in the classroom. No argument there either. On the other hand, many teachers and parents have told me that because they weren’t expecting profanity in a middle grade book, it gave them a good opportunity to discuss where profanity is socially acceptable and not, and what it was about that particular scene that made a character swear when he ordinarily wouldn’t. That’s a conversation worth having.

In the end I find it helpful to imagine myself sitting down to eat a meal with my reader. If my reader is 7 and the tone of my story is traditional and in the mood of a holiday dinner eaten with extended family, then I’d not use coarse language of any kind. If I was eating a picnic lunch with 10 year olds and parents were not hovering in earshot, I would probably use a substitute word or an evasion. With 14 year olds at the food court in the mall, I might use a profane word if it were appropriate to the conversation at hand, but I’d still use it sparingly because eighth graders are not adults, and the mall is not a high school locker room or a college dorm. There will be plenty of time for them to make the acquaintance of a broad range of swear words in young adult and adult fiction.

I’d love to hear what other people consider when making decisions about profanity, both in terms of writing and in terms of sharing books with middle grade kids as a parent or teacher or librarian. Drop us a line!